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The "Crisis of Confidence" series is a multi-year effort by the Tri States Public Radio to document the impact the two-year state budget impasse had on Western Illinois University and the ongoing recovery efforts at WIU. State support for public higher education institutions has been steadily declining in Illinois for more than a decade. But the issue was compounded, during the state's historic two-year budget impasse during Fiscal Years '16 and '17 which left public colleges and universities with little state financial support. At Western Illinois University, that drastic cut in state appropriations resulted in significant budget cuts, employee furloughs, and layoffs.

WIU President Jack Thomas: "We're Not Out of the Woods Yet"

Dr. Jack Thomas, President of Western Illinois University

The state of Illinois has a budget in place for next fiscal year, which will help public colleges and universities with their planning.  But the president of Western Illinois University said the state appropriation of $47.2 million for WIU falls short of what his school needs.

“We’re moving the university forward but we’re still not out of the woods yet,” Dr. Jack Thomas told the WIU Board of Trustees during its June 8 meeting.

“More difficult decisions will need to be made to balance our budget, address our deficit spending, to deal with our enrollment, and to address many other matters.”

Western's early projections show student enrollment will be down again this fall, meaning less money coming in from tuition and room and board fees. 

After the meeting, Tri States Public Radio asked Thomas about the possibility of further sacrifices by the university’s employees.

TSPR: Will we have another year of furloughs? 

Thomas: I would hope not. We have to look at our enrollment.  We have to look at the funding that we did get. My leadership team and I will be sitting down and looking at cost savings and we will be looking at our budget, our enrollment, and all of the things that we have before us before we can make that determination.

TSPR: Layoffs a possibility?

Thomas: Everything is at stake right now. I won’t say that it’s not. We’re leaving everything open right now until we make a decision.

Illinois went two fiscal years (FY ’16 and FY ’17) without a budget, which Thomas said created a "crisis of confidence" in public higher education in the state. The impasse forced Western to – among other things -- drop programs, issue layoffs and furloughs, leave positions vacant through attrition, and deplete its cash reserves.

Thomas said Western has also delayed maintenance projects due to the lack of state financial support.

“We’re down by $400 million in deferred maintenance,” he told TSPR.

Thomas said Western has also been hurt by the out-migration of high school students from Illinois deciding to attend college in other states and by the negative publicity generated during lengthy contract negotiations with the University Professionals of Illinois, which represents faculty and staff.

Thomas said everyone at Western now needs to pull together to move the university forward.  He said faculty and staff have made sacrifices on behalf of the school, and he thanked UPI members for approving what he called a sustainable contract.

He also said it’s a good sign that the state has a budget for next fiscal year and that it was ​passed by lawmakers and signed by Governor Bruce Rauner in a timely manner.

The state budget includes money for MAP grants for students from low income families, an expense many public universities -- including WIU -- covered upfront during the budget impasse. The schools were eventually reimbursed by the state.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.